Union Sponsored Commission Hears Testimony On Immigration Raids
(order of speakers: Rev. Marc Fallon, Catholic Social Services, Fall River, MA; Juana Garcia, former Michael Bianco Company employee - translation by Corrinne Williams, CEDC of Southeastern MA; John Willshire-Carrera, Attorney, Greater Boston Legal Services)
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Following her arrest in a March 6th, 2007 raid on the factory where she worked in New Bedford, MA, Juana Garcia tried to tell agents from the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that she needed to attend to her two year old son who suffered from severe asthma.
The former employee of the Michael Bianco Company (in 2006, the company was awarded a 32 million dollar contract to make modular backpacks for army, air force and marine corps troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan), said agents responded to a request to be released by telling her that her son was old enough to be without its mother. Later that day, Ms. Garcia, along with about 200 other undocumented workers, mostly from Guatemala, were shackled and transported by bus to Fort Devens and eventually to a prison camp in Texas.
Such was the testimony heard Monday by the National Commission on ICE Misconduct and Violations of the 4th Amendment at the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Since 2006, the group of ten private citizens, including former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, Reverend Samuel “Billy Kyles, a civil rights leader and colleague of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and several union and academic leaders, has been investigating charges that agents of the federal government use cruel and unusual tactics against immigrants and refugees during raids on businesses suspected of employing undocumented workers.
The Commission, established by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, intends to present its findings to Congress later this year. Some of the most well publicized raids have occurred at meat packing and other food related manufacturing plants. Joe Hansen, International president of the UFCW, remarked that all Americans “must be united in saying that work is not a crime.”
“Workers are not criminals, and we do not leave our rights at the workplace door. I also think we must recognize that our immigration system is broken. But the federal government’s failure to fix the broken immigration system is no excuse for ICE to break the law and or to violate our constitutional rights.”
Representatives of locally based worker’s rights groups such as the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), and Jobs for Justice, were on hand to lend administrative support for the hearing.
** You can hear audio from this event posted here: www.ibisradio.org/radioviewcast.htm **
All together, 361 people were arrested at the factory in New Bedford. Nearly all of those sent to the detention camp in Texas have been deported to their countries of origin. Back here in Massachusetts, slightly more than one hundred people are seeking work visas and asylum in the U.S.
A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement based in Minnesota told the Boston Globeon Monday that “…agents did not mistreat detainees and followed longstanding guidelines that provide for detainees' care.”
An attempt to reach an official in the ICE New England Regional office in Burlington, MA was unsuccessful.
Federal officials have refused calls to speak to the Commission publicly. Last month, during a visit to Boston and Harvard Law School, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for ICE Julie Myers told reporters that the agency took “extraordinary humanitarian steps” to protect the Michael Bianco factory workers.
That view stood in sharp contrast to the testimony given yesterday. Amaro Laria, a clinical psychologist and Director of the Latino Mental Health Program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, testified that “if we define terrorism as a systematic, premeditated act of violence that provokes feelings of terror in targeted victims, there’s no better term to describe these events [i.e. the raids in New Bedford and elsewhere.]
Dr. Laria described post traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms in children separated from their parents - including some who spoke of suicide - and the humiliating treatment of detained mothers.
“Like the mothers with nursing infants who were asked to prove that they were indeed lactating. And the women who had to use the bathroom in front of guards making fun of them.”
Several of those who gave testimony, including Reverend Marc Fallon of Catholic Social Services in Fall River, MA, said law enforcement agents used helicopters flying overhead to intimidate the workers. In places such as Guatemala and El Salvador, army helicopters historically have been used to destroy entire villages. Many of the New Bedford immigrants grew up in the 1980’s and have vivid memories of the wars in these Latin American countries.
Senator John Kerry, who made a brief but pointed statement before the Commission, said raids in New Bedford and elsewhere resulted from a failure of Bush administration policy and a poor response from Congress.
Referring to the March, 2007 raid in New Bedford, Kerry commented that “of all the dangers [to America] that were lurking, because of our broken immigration system, of all the threats being assessed by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, apparently on that day none were more insidious or challenging to us or more menacing than several hundred people, mostly young women in New Bedford, who were making backpacks for the U.S. Army.”
“The Bianco raid,” Kerry continued, “somehow attracted 500 armed federal agents and law enforcement officials which to me remains not just surprising but stunning when according to their own [ICE] press release, the reason for the raid was to arrest the owner and the manager who were preying on the immigration workforce. And shockingly, the owner and manager were out of custody and back in their homes and sleeping there long before any of those people who were being preyed on in those circumstances.”
According to published news reports, former Bianco Company owner Francesco Insolia and two other managers of the factory were arraigned in August, 2007 on charges of harboring and recruiting illegal immigrants. The case, presided over by Judge Douglas Woodlock, continues to be heard in federal district court in Boston.
On Monday, several municipal leaders spoke of the capricious nature of ICE raids and the social and economic impact on their constituents. Mayor John DeStafano, Jr., of New Haven, CT, described how a 2007 raid in the mostly Latino neighborhood of Fairhaven, came two days after a city ordinance was passed establishing identification cards that provide access to social services for all New Haven residents regardless of their citizenship status. Police officials, he said, were not informed of the law enforcement action prior to the ICE raid. Coincidentally, officers in New Haven are not allowed to inquire about residency status in the course of routine investigative work, such as traffic stops or when witnesses report crimes.
With help from members of the Connecticut Congressional delegation, a phone conversation was arranged between DeStafano and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The Mayor said Chertoff denied the raid came in response to the city’s progressive position on undocumented immigrants. Members of the Commission reacted with incredulity upon hearing this statement.
Jorge Avellaneda, a businessman and City Councilor in Chelsea, MA, testified that a series of small scale ICE raids have destroyed the trust built up over past years between immigrants and city officials. He described Chelsea as “an immigrant friendly city, a working class city,” where twenty different languages are spoken in the high school.
“The tool that ICE uses is fear. It’s the fear of people who are afraid that if they go out and they live their regular daily lives of going out to their jobs, to shop…that they’re not going to come home that day. And it’s the fear of a parent who says ‘if I go to work today, if I go shop today, and I get caught up in a raid, I’m not going to come home to my child.’ The reports of child care that we read about in New Bedford, of many children who were left unattended, and without anyone to pick them up, that is real. And that’s what affects the actions of our community.”
Avellaneda told the Commission that at least a 30 percent drop in retail sales in Chelsea can be attributed to the ICE raids.
At the insistence of Senator Kerry the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security has started its own investigation into last year’s New Bedford raid. Assistant Secretary Myers told reporters she would cooperate with the Inspector General’s office.
Caroline Murray, of the Alliance to Develop Power (ADP) in Springfield, MA, speaking to the concept that immigrants take jobs and resources from American citizens, ended her testimony by quoting Protestant theologian Robert Macafee Brown:
“What you see depends on where you stand, what you hear depends on whom you listen to, who you are depends on what you do.”